Friday, July 10, 2020

The Spiritualist (The Amazing Mr. X) (1948)

July 29, 1948, release date
Directed by Bernard Vorhaus
Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, Muriel Roy Bolton, Ian McLellan Hunter
Based on a story by Crane Wilbur
Music by Alexander Laszlo
Edited by Norman Colbert
Cinematography by John Alton

Turhan Bey as Alexis
Lynn Bari as Christine Faber
Cathy O’Donnell as Janet Burke
Richard Carlson as Martin Abbott
Donald Curtis as Paul Faber
Virginia Gregg as Emily
Harry Mendoza as Detective Hoffman

Distributed by Eagle-Lion Films
Produced by Ben Stoloff Productions

This may be the first time that I describe a film noir as fun and entertaining, but The Spiritualist certainly was a fun film noir. It reminds me of the films that I used to watch on television years ago, on weekday afternoons when I should have been doing my homework. And this may be the first time that I wasn’t really sure what to call this film. The Spiritualist also goes by the title The Amazing Mr. X, and for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why.

I’m sure no one ever intended to make both the plot and the title of this film mysterious. Was one title used for release in Great Britain? For release around the world? Was one a working title that was abandoned after test audiences saw the film before wide release? No one in the film is referred to as Mr. X, not even Alexis, the spiritualist. He’s the only one with an x in his name, so maybe viewers were just supposed to assume a connection. That seemed a bit weak to me, but finally I found the following information from TCM:

The Spiritualist is the title on the DVD that I watched (it was published by Columbia Classics and Sony Pictures). Based on the DVD and the information from Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I decided to go with The Spiritualist.

Now, to the film, which is really much more than a film noir. The mystery includes a dead husband supposedly calling to his wife from the grave. Is this film about a spiritual connection, or is the wife in need of some mental health care? The film starts with Christine Faber, the wife, looking out her bedroom window in the house overlooking the beach. (The opening credits appeared over this same beach.) She is approached from behind by a shadow; it appears to be a person holding a gun. But it’s Janet Burke, Christine’s sister, and she is holding nothing more than a hairbrush. Christine is standing in front of her window because she thought she heard the voice of her late husband Paul, who has been dead for two years now, calling to her.

Christine and Janet talk about Christine’s boyfriend, a lawyer named Martin Abbott. He plans to propose to Christine, and Janet is determined that her sister doesn’t miss what she thinks is a wonderful opportunity. Paul is dead, and nothing can bring him back. After such a sinister introduction and her sensible views about Paul, Janet comes across as flighty, a romantic who is barely out of her teenage years, during this conversation. I was never quite sure if Janet was to be trusted or not. The conversation between the sisters ends because Janet has a date of her own and leaves for a night out.

Christine talks to Martin on the phone and tells him that she would like to walk along the beach to meet him. On the beach, she hears the voice of her late husband calling her name several times. Then she literally bumps into Alexis, who seems to know a lot about her and her husband. I’m not sure if the filmmakers intended this, but Alexis comes across as odd for more than his extensive knowledge about Christine. He is also standing on the beach in a suit and tie, rather formal attire for night of sand and crashing waves! Alexis draws a distinction between himself, a psychic, and Martin, a very logical lawyer. He knows a lot about Martin Abbott, too. He gives Christine his business card, in case she would ever like to pursue her connections to her late husband. From this introduction of Alexis, the audience knows that Christine shouldn’t contact this man. And, of course, she does.

(This blog post about The Spiritualist contains some spoilers.)

A series of strange coincidences convinces Christine that Paul must be trying to contact her from the other side. But when she talks about these coincidences with Janet, she can’t prove any of it, and Janet cannot be convinced when she sees the evidence for herself. It seemed to me while I watched these scenes that Christine was being gaslighted, and I still had the feeling that Janet might not be as flighty as she came across after the opening of the film. This contradiction sets up the ambivalence and doubt that keep viewers guessing about what is going and who is responsible.

Christine mentions to Janet that she would like to talk to Alexis, the “psychic consultant” (so reads his business card) that she met on the beach. Based on Janet’s reaction, Christine starts going to Alexis for consultations in secret. The film cuts forward in time, to a scene when Janet and Martin follow Christine to Alexis’s house. Janet is trying to convince Martin that Christine could be in trouble, and now he is convinced. He and Janet consult a private detective, Detective Hoffman, and he tells them that all the psychics he has investigated are phonies.

The three of them decide to bait Alexis by sending in Janet, someone he doesn’t know. She goes to his house and is greeted with all the same stunts that greeted Christine, for example, the front door to Alexis’s house closing automatically behind her, the pet bird cawing on its perch in the living room. Alexis observes Janet through a two-way mirror as she touches up her lipstick and polishes a cigarette case. Alexis purposely leaves his fingerprints on the cigarette case, and I finally realized why Janet polished it in the first place. But Janet has fallen under his spell, and she has fallen in love with Alexis. When Janet leaves Alexis’s house, she is in such a fog that she walks past the car driven by Martin, with the detective in the passenger seat. She tells Martin that she got Alexis’s fingerprints but that she erased them. The film has some moments of humor, and one moment comes when Janet gets into the backseat of the car; Martin gives her a quick indelicate shove because he wants evidence, not another woman enchanted by Alexis.

The rest of the plot is a wonderfully entangled web in which no one can trust anyone else and no one knows what to believe. Viewers are caught up in this, too, especially when they find out what Alexis is up to and the tricks he uses to scam his clients into handing over more and more money. But even Alexis has a surprise or two up his sleeve.

I enjoyed this film much more than I thought I would. I didn’t have high hopes about it; the confusion about the title didn’t help much. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the plot provided some real surprises. It was great to watch a film that kept me guessing so effortlessly.

But I especially enjoyed the way the sisters, Janet and Christine, were compared and contrasted throughout. Christine appears to be the sensible older sister and Janet is the flighty younger one. Then Christine falls for Alexis’s psychic scams, and Janet eventually does, too. But it’s Janet, the younger sister, who finally realizes what’s been going on all along and does some investigating of her own. In another interesting twist, she has fallen in love with Alexis and still loves him, even after she finds out what he’s been up to. She is the reason that he redeems himself in the end.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Big Sleep (1946)

August 23, 1946, release date
Directed by Howard Hawks
Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman
Based on the novel The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Music by Max Steiner
Edited by Christian Nyby
Cinematography by Sidney Hickox

Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe
Lauren Bacall as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge
Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood
John Ridgely as Eddie Mars
Pat Clark as Mona Mars [1945 version only]
Peggy Knudsen as Mona Mars [1946 version only]
Regis Toomey as Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls
Charles Waldron as General Sternwood
Charles D. Brown as Norris
Bob Steele as Lash Canino
Elisha Cook, Jr. as Harry Jones, the man tailing Philip Marlowe
Louis Jean Heydt as Joe Brody
Dorothy Malone as Acme Bookstore proprietor
Sonia Darrin as Agnes Lowzier, the salesgirl at A.J. Geiger bookstore
Ben Welden as Pete, Mars’s flunky
Tom Fadden as Sidney, Mars’s flunky
Trevor Bardette as Art Huck
Theordore Eltz as Arthur Gwynn Geiger
James Flavin as Captain Cronjager [1945 version only]
Thomas E. Jackson as District Attorney Wilde [1945 version only]
Dan Wallace as Carol Lundgren
Joseph Crehan as the medical examiner
Joy Barlowe as the cab driver

Distributed by Warner Bros.
Produced by Warner Bros.

The Big Sleep has it all when it comes to film noir: Humphrey Bogart in the lead playing a detective, sometimes wearing his rumpled trench coat; murder; blackmail; dark and gloomy nights, which makes for perfect noir production and lighting values; drug addiction; and pornography, which is mostly implied in the era of Hollywood’s production code. And then there is the romance between Phil Marlowe (Bogart) and Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), which also makes it a Bogie and Bacall film, of course. There’s no doubt Bogart and Bacall have a commanding screen presence, although I thought this was more evident in their first film, To Have and Have Not.

Bogart and Bacall appeared in four films together, and The Big Sleep was their second:
To Have and Have Not (1944), loosely based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway (Click here for my post about the film.)
The Big Sleep (1946), based on the novel by Raymond Chandler
Dark Passage (1947), based on the novel by David Goodis
Key Largo (1948), based on the play by Maxwell Anderson
All four films are considered noir, and the second and third are written by authors who wrote many crime and detective novels.

The Big Sleep starts with Philip Marlowe arriving at the Sternwood residence at the request of General Sternwood, who is being blackmailed a second time. Both instances of blackmail are the result of questionable activities by the second of his two daughters, Carmen. She is the one who has the drug problem and is willing to pose for compromising pictures. Shawn Regan, who used to work for General Sternwood and followed up on the first instance of blackmail, is rumored to have run off with Eddie Mars’s wife and is now unavailable to help General Sternwood resolve Carmen’s troubles. Eddie Mars is the owner of a local casino, where Vivian Sternwood, the older of the two Sternwood daughters, has lost and won large sums of money. (Both daughters have trouble staying out of trouble!) Marlowe starts his investigation with Arthur Gwynne Geiger, the person sending the requests for money to General Sternwood, which turn out to be promissory notes signed by his daughter Carmen.

What follows is a complicated plot that parallels Marlowe’s investigation. I’ve seen the film, both versions (more about this below), several times, and I have read Raymond Chandler’s novel. There is some lore about the plot being so complicated that even the screenwriters didn’t know who killed which character. Wikipedia states:
The Big Sleep is known for its convoluted plot. During filming, neither the director nor the cast knew whether the chauffeur Owen Taylor had killed himself or was murdered. A cable was sent to Chandler, who told his friend Jamie Hamilton in a March 21, 1949. letter: “They sent me a wire . . . asking me, and dammit I didn't know either.”
(Click here for more at Wikipedia about the film.) This type of story adds to the mystique and allure of the film—and quite successfully, too.

(This blog post about The Big Sleep contains all the spoilers. I mean it!)

The plot of the film is indeed quite complicated, but it’s not indecipherable—especially if you are willing to see it more than once. I have to admit that seeing it several times helped me quite a bit. I took the following notes after seeing the film several years ago, which now keeps the plot from getting too tangled for me:
Shawn Regan: killed by Carmen Sternwood in the book, by Eddie Mars and perhaps with help from Carmen Sternwood in the film
Arthur Gwynn Geiger: killed by Owen Taylor
Owen Taylor, the Sternwoods’ chauffeur: killed by Joe Brody
Joe Brody, killed by Carol Lundgren, Geiger’s chauffeur
Harry Jones, now with Agnes Lowzier after Brody’s murder, killed by Lash Canino
Lash Canino, killed by Philip Marlowe
Eddie Mars, gunned down by his own henchmen

Book explains the title (the big sleep = death), but I don’t think the film ever does.

I suspect that many viewers in 1946 were more interested in seeing Bogart and Bacall on the big screen. In fact, one of the reasons that the original version of The Big Sleep was reshot was to take advantage of the on-screen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall and to satisfy fans who wanted to see more of them. The cover of the DVD that I watched shows the theatrical release poster, which proclaims, “The picture they were born for!”

The DVD comes with a short documentary to explain many of the changes and the reasons for them: The Big Sleep Comparisons 1945/1946. UCLA archivist Robert Gitt analyzes the differences between the 1945 and 1946 versions. Here are some of the points that Gitt makes in the DVD documentary:
Filming started on October 10, 1944, and ended on January 12, 1945. The film was ready for release to the public in March 1945. However, World War II ended in 1945. The Big Sleep was shelved for a year and a half so Warner Brothers could release all its war-themed films that it had in the pipeline and avoid having them become dated.
Howard Hawkes, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and others reshot scenes to capitalize on the chemistry between Bacall and Bogart. The producers wanted her to act more like her character, Marie “Slim” Browning, in To Have and Have Not (1944), which was an immensely popular film. Her performance in her second film, Confidential Agent, was panned by critics, so much so that many questioned her ability to act at all.
A letter dated November 16, 1945, from Charles K. Feldman, a talented Hollywood agent representing many in the film industry, including Lauren Bacall, to Jack L. Warner requested retakes with Lauren Bacall. He was trying to salvage his client’s, Lauren Bacall’s, career. He thought Bacall’s insolence in To Have and Have Not was a hit with audiences because she was more insolent than Bogart, and this was new and refreshing.
Warner agreed, and the reshot version was released to the public on August 23, 1946.

I noticed that Philip Marlowe doesn’t treat women particularly well in The Big Sleep. He is quick with the clever but rude comeback, although this doesn’t seem to hurt his chances with women, of course. Marlowe/Bogart is the leading man, and this is 1946. It certainly didn’t stop me from rooting for him and Vivian. Maybe they deserve one another? Anyway, here are a couple of examples:
After Marlowe does some research in the library, one of the librarians tells him, “You know, you don’t look like a man who’d be interested in first editions.” His quick comeback: “I collect blondes in bottles, too.”
When Marlowe continues his investigation at the Acme Bookstore, which is across the street from Geiger’s bookshop, he and the proprietor of the Acme Bookstore decide to share a drink. She doesn’t even get a name, although Marlowe has a rather long and romantically entangled stakeout in her store. He is willing to get to know her better, shall we say, while on the job, but she has to take off her glasses and change her appearance to suit him.

Almost seventy-four years after the film’s initial release, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall can still command the screen and hold the attention of film viewers. In spite of a plot that was reworked enough to make it difficult to follow and a starring detective who is rough around the edges in many ways, The Big Sleep is a still lot of fun. And I enjoyed figuring out all the intricacies of the plot.